WORD IN THE HAND: Hamstrung
To string the ham is to be strung along by baloney
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Local news reports have been hung up on processed meats this week. If it’s not polony it’s every second commentator using the word “hamstrung” in connection with the land ownership impasse. Which is quite annoying if you’re a word nerd, because technically speaking there is no such word as “hamstrung”.
In humans and other jointed animals, the hamstring is the tendon at the back of the knee. It should logically follow that the ostrich has hamstrings both at the front and the back of its knees, since it is the only animal with two kneecaps on each leg, but apparently this is not the case.
If a person’s hamstring is injured, they tend to hobble instead of walk. “Hobble” has Germanic roots and originally meant to sway from side to side, hence its association with a person unsteady on his pins.The secondary verb meaning of hobble – to render a fellow creature effectively crippled either by tying its legs together or severing its hamstrings – came later.
The ham part of hamstring comes from the anatomy of a pig, whose anterior knee region is better known to butchers as the ham hock. But the best way to explain why farmers without title deeds who cannot raise finance are hamstringed rather than hamstrung is to quote one of the founding fathers of English-language pedantry, Henry Watson Fowler.
In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage published in 1926, Fowler wrote: “In hamstring, -string is not the verb string; we do not string the ham, but do something to the tendon called the hamstring; the verb is made not from the two words ham & string, but from the noun hamstring. It must therefore make hamstringed.”
Food terms have frequently been the cause of painful indigestion for those learning English. Why, for example, is the meat of a chicken called chicken but when it comes to cows, pigs and sheep we suddenly have beef, pork and mutton?The answer is fairly simple: The names of the animals come from old English, whereas the names for meat made from these animals come from French.
According to scholars such as Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski, the meaty French words entered the vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon peasants after England was invaded by the French-speaking Normans in 1066. Only the rich and titled could afford meat, and the rich and titled were French, therefore what they called their fancy food was what stuck.
The French, however, had absolutely nothing to do with either the invention or the naming of polony. The word comes in a roundabout fashion from the anglicisation of American baloney, which in turn was circuitously derived from the eponymous sausage made in the Italian town of Bologna.
“Baloney”, incidentally, is also a synonym for blather, bunkum, claptrap, drivel, nonsense, piffle, poppy-cock, rigmarole, rubbish, tomfoolery, trash, twaddle and tommyrot.
Some may disagree when I say that a person hobbled by one thing or another has been hamstringed as opposed to hamstrung, but I assure you it’s not hogwash.